Role of Submarines in WWII
Narrative for Memorial Storyboards
Dave Vanderveen's Draft edited by Jeff Porteous and Charles Hinman (Major original sources: Silent Victory by Clay Blair; Submarine Operations in World War II by Theodore Roscoe; Submarine! by Edward L. Beach; The Last Patrol by Harry Holmes)
Through the 1930s, the United States Navy expected the biggest threat to the U.S. would lie in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific's vastness and long distances between supply points drove the Navy's strategic planning, tactical schemes and ship design. The battleship and its gunnery held primary focus in strategic planning, and tactics for the fleet were designed to support those big-gun ships in achieving and fighting line-of-battle engagements. Scouting capability'finding the enemy so the battle force could be properly deployed'became the principle job of carrier-borne aircraft and submarines. Submarines needed speed and stealth to fulfill their scouting role, and the ability to travel the vast reaches of the Pacific using only their onboard fuel storage. Submarine design evolved to provide these capabilities, along with equipment to produce fresh water, sufficient food storage to support the crew for eight to ten weeks at sea, and a formidable weapons launching and fire control system.
The attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 significantly disabled our force of battleships in addition to killing and wounding thousands of Americans. Consequently, U.S. strategic plans and tactics to engage the Japanese military in battle were made obsolete nearly overnight. Fortunately, our three aircraft carriers were at sea when the attack occurred, while the Japanese attackers' focus on our battleships left our ship repair facilities, fuel storage and our submarines at Pearl Harbor untouched. Soon after, the Japanese attacked our Navy in Manila Bay, where the first casualties among U.S. submariners took place: an aerial bomb significantly damaged both USS Seadragon and USS Sealion. Sealion could not be repaired sufficiently to get underway and was scuttled, the U.S. Navy's first submarine loss of World War II.
Quickly, the commander of the Pacific Fleet ordered the adoption of a new plan to use our submarine force to find and attack the Japanese across the vast reaches of the Pacific. Recognizing how handicapped U.S. forces were in fighting the Japanese Navy, and how dependent the Japanese Islands were on maritime supply, the Navy Department ordered our fleet to conduct "unrestricted air and submarine warfare" against the Japanese Empire. This meant that both Japanese warships and Japanese merchant ships were now considered fair targets.
On December 11, 1941, USS Gudgeon departed Pearl Harbor on the first U.S. submarine war patrol of WWII, underway for the coast of Japan. Through the next three years and eight months, as our military forces fought intense, bloody battles to drive the Japanese island by island back to their homeland, our submarines quietly went about the business of destroying the Japanese merchant marine and its ability to supply food, fuel and industrial raw materials for their war effort. Submariners did not speak of their exploits, and submarine force leaders rarely publicized their successes, which is how this branch of the Navy came to be known as "The Silent Service." In that war, fifty-two United States Navy submarines and more than 3,500 crewmen were lost. This Memorial site was built and is maintained as a memorial to those brave men and their stout ships.
In January, submarine S-36 ran aground on Taka Bakang Reef in the Celebes Sea among the islands of Indonesia. All hands were rescued. In the Gulf of Panama, USS S-26 was accidentally rammed and sunk by one of her own escort ships. Forty-six men were lost, but two of her crew survived.
February saw our first loss to Japanese anti-submarine forces at sea: USS Shark was sunk by surface craft in Molucca Passage with the loss of fifty-nine crewmen.
The following month, USS Perch was preparing to engage two Japanese destroyers north of Surabaya, Java when her periscope was sighted. The destroyers attacked with depth charges, causing severe damage. Perch escaped, but was sighted and attacked again, and damaged so badly she couldn't dive or make headway. Her captain ordered the crew to abandon and scuttle the submarine. All hands were taken aboard the enemy destroyers and spent the remainder of the war as prisoners, working in Japanese mines. Six of Perch's crew died in captivity.
In June, USS S-27 was patrolling in heavy seas and rough weather when she ran aground on rocks near Alaska's Amchitka Island. Unable to free herself or contact other ships, her captain ordered Abandon Ship, and her crew took refuge on the uninhabited island. Nearly a week later, they were sighted by a U.S. plane, rescued and taken to safety at Dutch Harbor.
A new boat, USS Grunion, went down on the last day of July near Kiska Island in the Aleutian chain with the loss of all hands. More than sixty years later, her hulk was found in 5,000 feet of water, but there was no conclusive evidence as to how she was lost.
During August, USS S-39 ran aground on a reef near Rossel Island in the Solomons. Her entire crew was rescued by a ship of the Australian Navy.
In January, USS Argonaut attacked a group of five Japanese ships, torpedoing one destroyer, successfully inflicting damage. In turn, Argonaut was attacked with depth charges, lifting her to the surface where she was struck many times by gunfire. She soon sank with the loss of all hands.
One of the submarine Navy's legendary events occurred in February, when USS Growler attacked a small convoy. In the heat of battle she collided with one of the smaller ships, its crew machine-gunning the submarine's bridge and periscope shears, killing two crewmen and wounding the captain, Howard W. Gilmore. Gilmore ordered the other survivors off the bridge, then ordered his Executive Officer to "Take her down!" before more life could be lost or damage suffered. Briefly struggling with the thought of leaving his wounded captain above to die, the "XO" ultimately complied with his superior's last order and submerged the ship. Captain Gilmore was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States' highest award for valor in battle, for sacrificing his life to ensure the safety of his ship and crew.
Also in February, USS Amberjack was sunk by surface craft and aircraft bombs near New Hanover with loss of all hands.
The following month, USS Grampus and USS Triton were also attacked and sunk by surface craft in the same area. The Navy was never able to determine the subs' actions or the circumstances of the attack. All hands were lost in both boats.
USS Pickerel was patrolling along the northern Japanese Islands in April when she torpedoed and sank two ships. She was then sighted and bombed by aircraft and then depth-charged by Japanese surface forces, sinking with her whole crew. Also that month, USS Grenadier was sighted by a Japanese aircraft as she attacked a convoy of ships near Malaya. Bombs dropped by the plane damaged Grenadier's electric motors and propeller shafts to the point where she could only lay dead in the water. The next day, while still on the surface attempting repairs, she was attacked by more aircraft and surface ships, and her captain was forced to order his crew to abandon and scuttle the submarine. All hands were rescued by the Japanese, who treated them brutally and imprisoned them on the Japanese home islands for the rest of the war. Four crewmen died in captivity; seventy-two survived.
USS Runner was en route to her assigned patrol area among the northern Japanese Islands when she was lost with all hands in May. Postwar investigation indicated she likely struck a mine in a field newly lain by the Japanese in the area.
In June, USS R-12 was training new submariners near Key West, Florida when she flooded and sank in a tragic diving accident. Forty-two men died; six survived.
USS Pompano, another boat patrolling off the northern Japanese Islands, sank two ships in August, but then probably also struck a mine in the same field where Runner had been lost. Pompano disappeared with all hands.
Two submarines were lost in September. After conducting Special Operations in the Philippines, USS Grayling patrolled near Lingayen Gulf. She was lost to an unknown cause with her entire complement. Later, USS Cisco was discovered by enemy aircraft in the Sulu Sea and sank with all hands in a coordinated aircraft and surface ship attack.
In October, three submarines were lost. S-44 attacked a Japanese destroyer off the Aleutian Islands and was hit by naval artillery fire. She sank with fifty-five men aboard. Two who had escaped as the boat went down were picked up by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.
A new submarine, USS Dorado, was running through the Caribbean Sea on her way to Pacific duty via the Panama Canal when she was sighted by a patrolling U.S. bomber. Even though Dorado provided the proper "friend or foe" recognition signals, the misguided plane attacked with bombs and destroyed her and her whole crew.
USS Wahoo, famous within the submarine force for her daredevil captain, Dudley "Mush" Morton, and his many inventive and aggressive attacks, had just completed another productive patrol in the Sea of Japan. While she was attempting to exit via La Perouse Strait, she was discovered, attacked and sunk with all hands. Nearly sixty years later her wreck was found on the bottom of the strait with significant damage to her hull and superstructure. Subsequent investigation revealed she had been located by shore-based radar, then sighted and bombed by aircraft.
In November, USS Corvina was one of three U.S. boats dispatched to intercept a Japanese submarine. However, the Japanese sub sighted Corvina first, torpedoed and destroyed her with the loss of all hands.
A week later, a legendary submarine force action took place when USS Sculpin'with Division Commander Captain John Cromwell aboard'attacked a convoy near Truk. Japanese destroyers seriously damaged Sculpin, and she ran deep, licking her wounds and hoping for an opportunity to escape the area. Finally thinking themselves clear, her Captain and crew attempted to take the boat up to periscope depth, but lost depth control and broached. She quickly submerged again, but a patient destroyer waiting nearby dropped an effective depth charge pattern, sealing Sculpin's fate. The doomed sub surfaced again, unable to stay submerged, her Captain trying to give his crew one last chance to survive. They manned their deck guns, but were no match for the destroyer's firepower'Sculpin was attacked instantly with deadly gunfire, killing the bridge watch, including the Captain. When it became obvious Sculpin could not survive, the order was given to Abandon Ship. Captain Cromwell, knowing of upcoming battle plans and harboring information about the Navy's ability to read important Japanese codes, chose to go down with Sculpin rather than chance this top secret information wind up in enemy hands'doubtless preventing untold casualties and saving countless lives. He and eleven others perished aboard Sculpin that day; the remainder of the crew had escaped, but only half were ultimately picked up by Japanese ships. This group was divided in two and put aboard separate vessels bound for Japan. Soon afterward, one of those ships was sunk by a U.S. submarine, taking all aboard, including the Sculpin survivors, to their deaths. After the war, when the remaining half's survivors reported Cromwell's selfless decision, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his action.
In December, USS Capelin was lost with all hands while patrolling among the Philippine Islands. No cause was ever determined.
Early in the New Year, USS Scorpion patrolled into the East China Sea and was never heard from again. Documents captured from the Japanese during the U.S. invasions of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands included secret "Notices to Mariners" showing the exact locations of Japanese minefields'including an extensive one in the East China Sea. Presumably, Scorpion's loss with her crew can be attributed to having entered this field.
In February, USS Grayback sank three ships and damaged several more while operating along the coast of Formosa. She was headed homeward when a Japanese carrier plane sighted and attacked her east of Okinawa. A direct bomb hit sank Grayback with her entire crew. Only days later, USS Trout attacked two large transports carrying troops to reinforce Saipan and Guam. She damaged one and sank the other, which went to the bottom taking most of its troops and all their equipment. Vengeful escorting destroyers counterattacked and sent Trout to the bottom in turn. There were no survivors.
At the end of March, USS Tullibee sighted a convoy while patrolling in the Palau Islands. Among other ships, the enemy group included a large troop transport. Attacking on the surface under cover of a rain squall, Tullibee fired two torpedoes at the transport. She was then shocked and shaken by an unexpected, violent explosion. A few men on the bridge were thrown into the water, and the submarine slid quickly'unintentionally'below the surface. The men in the water, including C. W. Kuykendall, did their best to swim through the night. But by dawn, only Kuykendall remained to be picked up by a convoy escort. He learned that the transport had indeed been struck by one of Tullibee's torpedoes; but he was certain the second torpedo had malfunctioned, circling back to strike the firing submarine. (This would not be the only report of new Mk. 18 electric torpedoes making defective circular runs.) Kuykendall spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, a slave laborer in the Japanese mines. He was Tullibee's only survivor.
In May, USS Gudgeon was chasing a convoy with two other submarines near Saipan. The skippers of the other boats each reported hearing an extensive depth charge attack about ten miles distant, and believed it had been made on Gudgeon. She was never heard from again.
The following month, two submarines were lost. USS Herring sank two ships in a convoy while patrolling near the Kurile Islands chain. She then located two other ships at anchor in a harbor. Remaining on the surface, she moved into range and sank both ships with torpedoes. But an onshore artillery battery immediately fired upon her, scoring two hits. Herring went down with all hands. Two weeks later, USS Golet was sighted and attacked off northeast Honshu. She too went down with her whole ship's complement.
In July, two more submarines were destroyed. USS S-28 sank during a training dive off the Hawaiian Islands. Then USS Robalo struck a mine while traveling through the Balabac Strait on the surface. The boat sank immediately, taking most of her crew. About half a dozen men on the bridge were thrown into the sea, however. They made it ashore on Palawan Island, but were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. Tragically, none survived the war.
In August, two weeks after Robalo's sinking, USS Flier also traversed Balabac Strait'in her case at high speed, hoping to intercept a convoy in the South China Sea. But she too struck a mine, going down instantly with nearly all her crew. Thirteen men escaped as the boat went under however, and eight ultimately survived to swim to a nearby island. They eventually made contact with U.S. forces, and were later picked up by the American submarine USS Redfin and taken to Australia. Thereafter, Balabac Strait was ordered off limits to all U.S. submarines.
Also in August, USS Harder patrolled north of Manila in coordination with a second submarine, USS Hake. After conducting several attacks, both boats waited off a small harbor for further target opportunities. Two escorts exited this harbor and immediately located the submarines with sonar. Harder, long successful in dealing with angry escorts, intentionally bore the brunt of the oncoming attack, helping Hake to evade and make her escape. Fifteen depth charges'some, it's believed, from a captured U.S. warship operated by the Japanese'wrote Harder's epitaph, and she was lost with all hands. Her skipper, the ebullient Commander Sam Dealey, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his earlier fifth patrol on Harder, when he had deliberately taken on and was thought to have sunk no less than five destroyers over the course of the run. (Postwar evidence later reduced the sinkings to three with two damaged, though this was truly no less a feat, considering these fast, agile ships were specifically designed for antisubmarine warfare.) Dealey and Harder had also participated in the daring rescue of a group of allied guerillas from Borneo Island during that same patrol.
October saw the loss of five U.S. submarines. USS Seawolf, heading out from the Admiralty Islands, carried supplies and Army agents to be put ashore on Samar. During the transit she passed close to Allied surface forces supporting the invasion of Morotai and the Palau Islands. Seawolf was rightfully moving within a safety lane established for U.S. submarines in the area, but when she was sighted by a U.S. plane, she was attacked anyway. An overzealous nearby destroyer hurried over to join in the fray and soon picked up Seawolf on sonar. The submarine did not try to evade and, it was later recognized, did attempt to transmit recognition signals via her own sonar. The inquisitive destroyer wasn't deterred however, and pressed the attack'dropping depth charges and firing hedgehog projectiles. Seawolf was struck and quickly succumbed, taking her entire crew and Army passengers to their final resting place deep in the sea, the second known case (after Dorado) of an American submarine lost to friendly fire during WWII.
The Japanese were quick to mount a committed counterattack against our invasion of the Philippines, and U.S. submarines were the first to sight these oncoming forces. USS Dace and USS Darter took on a task group near Palawan Island, sinking two cruisers and damaging a third. After evading retributive attacks by destroyers, the two sub skippers joined forces to chase the crippled cruiser northward. Running at high speed through the rocks and shoals off Palawan'an area known as "Dangerous Ground" to mariners' USS Darter ran hard aground. Her crew worked through the night in a desperate attempt to free the boat from the reef, but it became obvious she was stuck fast. Darter's crew then set timed demolition charges, escaping to be picked up by USS Dace, who fired upon Darter's hulk to destroy her, preventing her salvage by the enemy. Darter's entire crew was later assigned to a new submarine, USS Menhaden. Darter's remains could be seen on that reef even into the 1980s.
USS Shark (II) torpedoed a large transport while operating as part of a wolfpack in the Formosa Strait and South China Sea. She was attacked and sunk by depth charges from an enemy destroyer. Once again, as was usually the case, the submarine's entire crew was lost in the action. "Bubbles, heavy oil, clothes and cork," according to Japanese witnesses, came up to mark the grave.
USS Tang, already among the top-scoring U.S. submarines, sank five ships in three attacks while on patrol between China and the island of Formosa. With half of her torpedoes still aboard, she then fired upon another convoy, sinking two ships and damaging a third. Tang's skipper, Commander Richard Hetherington O'Kane'former XO to and student of Wahoo's trendsetting Mush Morton'ordered her last two aft torpedoes loaded and launched at the crippled ship. One ran "hot, straight and normal," to quote the submarine parlance. But the other, the boat's final "fish," immediately turned hard to the left and circled back toward Tang. O'Kane maneuvered swiftly to evade, but there was just no avoiding it: the torpedo struck the boat in the stern, destroying the after engine and torpedo rooms. O'Kane and eight others on the bridge were thrown into the water as the sub's stern dropped to the sea floor 180 feet below. Many survivors gathered forward, flooding the ballast tanks to level the boat, which came to rest easily the bottom. Eventually, thirteen men managed to exit the ship through the escape trunk, though only five safely negotiated the ascent to the surface. Altogether, nine men survived to be picked up by a Japanese destroyer at daybreak. They were horribly treated then imprisoned for the remainder of the war, most to work in mines on the Japanese home islands. USS Tang had sunk seven Japanese ships in a two-week period, and when Navy leaders learned about this after her survivors had been repatriated after the war, skipper O'Kane was awarded the Medal of Honor. Motor Machinist's Mate Jesse DaSilva, who had also survived the sinking and imprisonment, was a Life Member and former President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, which built and maintains this Memorial site.
USS Escolar was patrolling the East China Sea with two other U.S. submarines. Her skipper advised the others he was about to approach the south end of Tsushima Strait, the southern entrance to the Sea of Japan. He and Escolar were never heard from again. Later investigation suggested that Escolar had likely struck a mine, sinking with all hands, though her final fate may never be known.
Three submarines were lost in November. USS Albacore and USS Scamp sailed along the northern Japanese Islands, an area in which four U.S. submarines had already been lost to mines. Albacore'famous for having sunk the Taiho, Japan's newest and largest fleet aircraft carrier at the time, during the run-up to the naval battle later known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot'was maneuvering submerged off Hokkaido, close inshore on November 7th. A Japanese patrol boat in the area reported witnessing a large underwater explosion which brought up oil, cork and bedding to the surface. Albacore was thus lost with all hands, presumably to another submerged mine.
Also on the 7th, USS Growler, working as part of a three-boat wolfpack in the southern Philippines, carefully maneuvered to attack a Japanese convoy. Counterattacking Japanese destroyers evidently found and destroyed her and her crew, since she was never seen again after this engagement. A week later, Scamp was ordered to patrol the entrance to Tokyo Bay. She was never seen nor heard from again either, lost with all hands probably as a result of entering a newly laid minefield now known to have existed just outside the harbor.
USS Swordfish was ordered to reconnoiter Okinawa in January. On the 12th, she contacted the nearby sub, USS Kete. Four hours later, Kete's crew heard many heavy depth charge explosions, and Swordfish was unresponsive thereafter. Later investigation could never fully determine if she'd been sunk in the attack or had struck a mine in a new field nearby. She had disappeared with all hands.
In February, USS Barbel patrolled the southern end of Palawan Island when she was sighted by aircraft and attacked with bombs. One struck near her bridge, sinking the boat and killing her whole crew.
In March, a U.S. carrier task force attacked the Japanese home islands, with several submarines assigned nearby to act as lifeguards for any downed pilots vectoring in or out'and also to intercept and sink ships where possible, of course. Two of these submarines were lost: USS Kete destroyed three freighters south of Japan, then disappeared. U.S. Navy code breakers believe she was intercepted and torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near Okinawa, but no conclusive proof was ever found. Meanwhile, USS Trigger also attacked and sank Japanese ships near Okinawa, but was counterattacked by both surface ships and aircraft. She too was lost with all hands.
USS Snook had been assigned lifeguard duty east of Formosa for a British carrier strike force in April. When the British commander called Snook to alert her to a downed aircraft, there was no response. Snook was simply gone, and there was no clue in Japanese records after the war about what had become of her'though at least one source credits a Japanese submarine as the probable cause of her loss, later sunk itself, which was known to be operating with other enemy subs in the area at the time.
USS Lagarto, patrolling in the Gulf of Siam in May with another submarine, USS Baya, attempted to attack a small convoy, but both were driven off by radar-equipped escorts. The two skippers planned a new attack and executed it the next day, but were effectively counterattacked. Later, Baya tried to contact Lagarto, but received no response. Postwar investigation suggests she was likely sunk by a minelayer, one of the radar-equipped escorts from the day before. More than sixty years later, Lagarto's wrecked hull was found in the Gulf of Siam at a depth of 200 feet. Divers found one of her torpedo tubes open and empty, indicating she had been engaged in an attack. Her diving planes were on full dive, and her rudder had been turned to left full, hinting she'd been evading. Damage to her hull and superstructure show that at least one depth charge opened the forward battery compartment to the sea, flooding the submarine and assigning her crew forever to the deep. As a postscript, two weeks after attacking Lagarto, the minelayer in question was itself sunk by USS Hawkbill, another American submarine.
In June, the Commander of Submarine Forces in the Pacific (COMSUBPAC), Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood (the beloved "Uncle Charlie" to his subordinates), ordered a foray of nine submarines into the Sea of Japan. A few individual boats had penetrated Japanese defenses to patrol these critical inland sea shipping lanes earlier in the war, but this new effort would be the first effort to truly blanket the Sea of Japan with submarine patrols. Over a ten-day period, the nine subs'the extended multiple wolfpack of Top Secret "Operation Barney"'sank twenty-eight ships altogether during the mission. However, one sub was lost: USS Bonefish. She had destroyed one big ship, then sighted more sheltered in shallow Toyama Bay. As soon as she"d entered the bay and torpedoed another ship, Bonefish was sighted and attacked with depth charges by multiple Japanese anti-submarine vessels. This action brought up debris and a considerable oil slick. There can be little doubt that Bonefish and her crew forever rest at this location.
On August 6th, USS Bullhead was sighted by an aircraft as she transited Lombok Strait. The plane dropped bombs and its aim was precise: Bullhead was hit twice. She went down fast with all hands, the last U.S. submarine lost in World War II.
After the war, an assessment of U.S. military combat performance by a joint Army-Navy commission (JANAC) found that U.S. submarines had destroyed nearly 1,400 Japanese ships (for 5.5 million tons), or 55% of Japan's total lost shipping. A detailed independent investigation later conducted by Capt. John Alden'now thought to be more accurate than JANAC's conclusions'significantly increased those Japanese lost-to-U.S.-sub figures. (Remaining Japanese ship losses had been the responsibility of surface forces, naval and army aircraft, and mines.)
The U.S. put to sea a force of nearly 300 submarines altogether over the course of WWII, comprising 20,000 officers and enlisted men, or 1.6% of Navy's total personnel. So, a truly unique service representing less than 2% of the Navy destroyed over half of Japan's navy and merchant marine.
Along with the fifty-two U.S. submarines lost during World War II, more than 3,500 officers and enlisted men made the ultimate sacrifice. Our submarine service therefore lost 22% of its ranks, the highest statistical casualty rate for any branch of the U.S. military.
This Memorial site was built and is maintained as a tribute to those heroic men and their silent ships, and represents a remembrance of the outstanding performance by the entire U.S. Submarine Service.